|Road Hill House, front view|
I find the Road Hill House case to be very fascinating. Not only because both the case and Mr Whicher himself have inspired numbers of authors afterwards, or that they have, in a way, “laid the foundation” of how we picture the typical detective and detective story today. It is also fascinating and interesting because of the public hysteria it caused in the 1860s and years to come after it. Even now, there are still people who speculate about the true purpose of the murder and who truly was involved in it.
The Road Hill House mystery is special in so many different ways, and one of the main reasons for this is because of Mr Jonathan ‘Jack’ Whicher. Mr Whicher was described as “the prince of detectives” by one of his colleagues and he was one of the founding members of the first detective force in the English-speaking world (The Guardian). He was assigned to the case when local policemen were unsuccessful to find the killer, and only days after he arrived at Road Hill House he had developed a brilliant solution to the mystery. He shocked society by accusing the 16-year-old Constance Kent, daughter of Samuel Kent and half-sister to the victim, for the murder of her younger brother. Mr Whicher based these accusations on a missing nightdress. In my opinion, you have to be quite clever to come to this conclusion based on so vague evidence, and still be utterly convinced by it [this will be discussed further on]. One of the reasons why this caused public hysteria was because a working class detective accused a young lady of superior breeding. Mr Whicher did not only cause a public arouse, but he was also attacked by the press and the House of Commons for his ‘horrifying allegations’ (The Guardian).
This difference in class was used as a sub-plot by Wilkie Collins in his detective novel ‘The Moonstone’ (1868). Collins’s novel is similar to the case in other ways as well. He fashioned from it a template for detective fiction, but instead of a child-murder and bloodstains, he wrote about a jewel theft and splashes of paint (The Guardian). Very much like the Road Hill House case, there is an investigator in The Moonstone who strives to expose the secrets of the inhabitants of an English country house, and his task is to distinguish the innocent from the guilty. Collins also borrowed some details from the Road Hill House ‘story’, such as a sullied and missing nightdress; a laundry book that proves its loss; an incompetent local police officer; and a renowned detective summoned to the countryside from London.
Another author who found inspiration in the Road Hill House case, and in Mr Whicher, is Mary Elizabeth Braddon and her novel ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ (1862). The novel features some details which were present at Road Hill, such as a ‘wicked’ stepmother (a governess who married a gentleman), a brutal murder at an elegant country house, a body pushed into a well, and the fact that the novel’s characters are fascinated by detection and terrified of exposure. Mr Whicher is also “present” as the amateur detective Robert Audley.
Both ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ and ‘The Moonstone’ were among the most famous of the “sensation” or “enigma” novels of the 1860s, and they were what Henry James called “those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries that are at our own doors… the terrors of the cheerful country house, or the busy London lodgings”. Their secrets were exotic, but their settings were oh so familiar.
The living arrangement in the Kent’s family during Samuel Kent’s first marriage is also very similar to the novel ‘Jane Eyre’. Samuel was living with his (supposed to be) derange wife and with an increasingly favoured governess, and this triangle has spectacular parallels with Charlotte Bronte’s novel (which by the way was published long before the murder at Road Hill House even happened).
|Constance Kent (in 1874)|
So in the end, Mr Whicher’s suspicions about Miss Kent and the nightgown were proven true. I think it’s so impressive to come to the conclusion that she did it, based on a missing nightgown, the fact that she had been hiding clothes in that privy before and that she was physically strong (which is not much to go on). Based on the lack of evidence, one can understand why people thought that these accusations were very vague, so it’s amazing that Mr Whicher was right. He really is the true Sherlock Holmes, and it is sad that he did not get the acknowledgement he should have gotten while he was alive; that he is more famous now, after his death, for the inspiration he gave to the fictional detective, rather than the actual forensic skills he had as a detective. However, I am glad that people can still appreciate him now (even though they may not know it) through fiction, instead of leaving him and his brilliant mind behind - unknown - in the past.
Summerscale, Kate (2008) The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, London: Bloomsbury